Generally, children in California must ride in the back seat of a motor vehicle until they reach 6 years of age or 60 pounds. Exceptions to this rule apply. In some cases, for instance, a back seat is not available. As the California Highway Patrol (CHP) suggests, children should ride in the back seat until they are at least 12 years old. In a few, relatively uncommon cases, though, they are safer in the front seat.
Child Restraint Law
California's child restraint law states that motor vehicle drivers must transport children in the back seat in a child passenger safety system until they reach either 6 years of age or 60 pounds. Violation of the child restraint law results in a fine of $100 for the first offense. A second and all subsequent offenses trigger a $250 fine. The court can waive these penalties if the defendant proves that economic hardship and completes an education program that deals with proper use of child restraint systems.
In special situations, children who are under 6 years of age and less than 60 pounds may ride in the front seat of a motor vehicle in California. For example, children may ride in the front seat when no rear seat is available or the vehicle's rear seats are rear-facing or side-facing jump seats. If other children under 12 years old occupy all available rear seats, remaining children, under 6 years and 60 pounds, may ride in the front seat. Doctor-certified medical conditions also allow for front seat riding among the under 6 years and less than 60 pounds demographic. In all cases, though, these young children must be properly secured in a child passenger safety system when riding in the front seat.
Proper Booster Seat Use
California law also allows children under 6 years of age and less than 60 pounds to ride in the front seat if a child restraint device cannot be properly installed in the back seat. For example, children who ride in booster seats--typically 4- to- 8-year olds--require a shoulder/lap belt to secure them in their booster seat. As CHP explains, booster seats are not made to work with a lap belt only, therefore move your child to the front seat and use the shoulder/lap belt if the back seat is not properly outfitted.
Taxis and Limos
Taxicab and limousine drivers in California also need to be aware of special restrictions regarding children riding in the front seat. The state's seat belt law specifically calls out these types of vehicles. Law enforcement can cite taxi and limo operators if children, 6 years of age and older or 60 pounds or more, do not wear a seat belt when riding in the front seat of either vehicle.
As CHP argues, children run a greater risk of injury when riding in the front seat. in fact, CHP contends that a child's injury risk declines by 33 percent when moving from the front to back seat. Along those lines, California law forbids parents and caregivers to place babies in rear-facing car seats in the front seat of a motor vehicle in front of an active passenger air bag. Activation of the air bag can result in serious injury or death as it impacts the portion of the car seat where the back of the child's head rests.